“All of my day goes in meetings!”

I commonly hear these words, or similar refrains, when working with clients in a coaching context. The sub-text is “I cant get anything done because meetings prevent me from doing my work” and a sense that  “I have no control over this”.  It doesn’t have to be that way, yes meetings are a necessary part of our working life but they should be a productive and positive contribution not a blocker to getting things done and not a torment to be endured.

There are many strategies that can be adopted to make meetings more effective and productive:

Be clear about the purpose of the meeting

Seems obvious doesn’t it?  Many meetings are set up to discuss a particular issue and their purpose might seem obvious but other meetings are there as standing fixtures.  In the case of these latter, regular, meetings think about why they are there.  Are they achieving their objective? Unless the answer to that question is a clear “yes” then reconsider the necessity for them, whether they need to be structured differently, etc.

What is it you want to achieve from the meeting?

Be very clear about what it is you want to achieve from the meeting.  This is related to the point above, but different.  This is about being clear on the outcome(s) you want from each individual meeting.  Is it to communicate a message, is it to secure agreement to a proposal, is it just to get greater clarity about your role, is it to collectively work through an issue and a way of of proceeding. Be clear about what is to be achieved.  If you are a participant and not the organiser make sure you get your issue onto the table as something that you would like discussed and resolved.

Be clear on the start time for meetings

That is, if a meeting is scheduled to start at 10am then ensure that is when it starts.  Attendees, and particularly you if you are the organiser, shouldn’t be strolling in the door at the start time or a few minutes later.  This is disrespectful to other attendees and is time wasting. If people are drifting or running in the door ‘just on time’ or late they are not going to be mentally present for several minutes into the meeting.

Encourage a culture where people are present and ready to start at the nominated start time.

Avoid the social chat

Quite often it becomes habit in internal meetings to fall into 5 minutes or more of social chat at the start of a meeting.  Be wary of this.  It can be helpful as a way of allowing a bit of camaraderie in the work place and if you judge that is important then that is ok.  Be aware however that some participants may be time pressed and therefore feel frustrated by ‘idle’ chat, some will not have any interest in the footy results on the weekend, it can create the sense that the meeting is just a get together and not about achieving desired business outcomes. Preferably, find other opportunities for the social interaction.

Don’t get locked in to the half hour or hour meeting syndrome – and mix it up a bit

It is common practice, I suggest it is almost lazy practice, that meetings are almost all scheduled for half hour or hour slots.  Tools like Outlook encourage this habit with their default to standard time slots.

Meetings don’t necessarily need to fit into those standard time slots.  Instead of a half hour meeting perhaps 10 minutes or 20 minutes would suffice.  If there is a shorter time it will encourage a focus on getting to the point and to the outcome more quickly and efficiently.  It should also mean that participants (including you) have time and head space after your meeting to get ready for their next meeting if there is one in their diary.

This strategy can also be aided by mixing it up a bit.  Start a 20 minute meeting at 10.05am, for example. This practice further emphasises that you are working to a tight time frame.  It gets you away from back to back meetings tied to the half hour and hour markers.

Do you fall into the “I must attend” default? (empower others)

My experience is that many senior managers attend far more meetings than they really need to.  “I have to go to represent the area”, “I go to emphasise the meeting is important”, “I go to ensure the meeting achieves the right outcomes”, “I attend because I need to be there to know what is going on”,  …

I encourage managers not to get into the ‘I must attend default.  It is absolutely the case that there are meetings you must attend for one’, or more, of the rationales touched on above. However, you don’t need to attend or feel obliged to attend all meetings people ask you to.  There will be meetings that members of your team can attend on your behalf.  They may lack a degree of confidence to do so and you may have some reservations about whether they will represent you or the area well but as a leader it is important to empower people to step up.  Coach them into being able to step up, show your trust in them, put in place mechanisms so you get the feedback you need. Use the time saved to devote to higher value priorities.

Do you always have to be chair? (empower others)

Yes there is an empowerment theme going on here.  Those regular divisional, branch or section meetings present a great opportunity to empower others to step up and chair individual meetings.  This can include being the chairperson during the meeting and also responsibility for ensuring the objectives and agenda are set and clear and that meeting outcomes are achieved.  Creating these opportunities and coaching staff through them feeds into the opportunity for those staff to step up and attend meetings on your behalf.

Be aware that meetings are expensive

Yes, the meeting treadmill can be be costly in terms of their impact on staff energy and morale. Meetings are also very expensive measured in dollar terms and as an opportunity cost.

The Harvard Business Review has developed a simple little ‘Meeting Cost’ App that you can load on your phone or tablet.  It allows you to quickly estimate the dollar cost of any particular meeting. The result can be an eye-opener.  Have a think about, and perhaps encourage others to think about, the dollar cost of regular meetings with large numbers of participants.  Do you individually and collectively get good value for the dollars spent?

You can find the HBR App at the following link:

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